Home  »  Volume IX: English FROM STEELE AND ADDISON TO POPE AND SWIFT  »  § 4. Life and Writings of William Law

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

XII. William Law and the Mystics

§ 4. Life and Writings of William Law

William Law had a curiously paradoxical career. After graduating as B.A. and M.A. at Cambridge, in 1708 and 1712, and being, in 1711, ordained and elected fellow of his college (Emmanuel), he refused to take the oaths of allegiance to George I, and thus lost his fellowship and vocation. Though an ardent high churchman, he was the father of methodism. Though deprived of employment in his church, he wrote the book which, of all others for a century to come, had the most profound and far-reaching influence upon the religious thought of his country. Though a sincere, and, so he believed, an orthodox Christian, he was the classic exponent of Boehme, a thinker abhorred and mistrusted alike by eighteenth century divines and by Wesleyan leaders.

About the year 1727, Edward Gibbon selected Law as tutor for his only son, the father of the historian, and, in 1730, when his pupil went abroad, Law lived on with the elder Gibbon in the “spacious house with gardens and land at Putney,” where he was “the much honoured friend and spiritual director of the whole family.”

During these years at Putney, Law’s reputation as a writer became assured. He was already known as the ablest defender of non-juror principles; the publication of A Serious Call in 1729 had brought him renown, and he was revered and consulted by an admiring band of disciples. His later life was spent at his birthplace, King’s Cliffe, near Stamford. He settled there in 1737 or 1740, and was joined by Hester Gibbon, the historian’s aunt, and Mrs. Hutcheson, a widow with considerable means. This oddly assorted trio gave themselves to a life of retirement and good deeds, the whole being regulated by Law. With a united income of over £3000 a year, they lived in the simplest fashion. They spent large sums in founding schools and almshouses, and in general charity, which took the form of free daily distribution of food, money and clothes, no beggar being turned away from the door, until the countryside became so demoralised with vagrants that the inhabitants protested and the rector preached against these proceedings from the pulpit. The trouble, however, seems to have abated when the three kind-hearted and guileless offenders threatened to leave the parish, and, possibly, it may have caused them to exercise a little discrimination in their giving.

Here, at King’s Cliffe, after more than twenty years of residence, passed in the strictest routine of study and good works, Law died, after a short illness, almost in the act of singing a hymn.